Rob Hilario

2021 Ambassador Rob Hilario

Jessie Nowak: (00:02)

Hello, my name is Jessie Nowak and I’m the Funds Development director at Dance Wire. Today is February 28th, 2022, and I’m here with Rob Hilario. I want to talk to him about his life and career as a dance artist as part of our Artist Stories series.

Rob Hilario: (00:22)

Oh God. I’m so nervous now.

Jessie Nowak: (00:23)

Welcome. You’re being recorded. [laughter] So let’s start with your current titles.

Rob Hilario: (00:32)

My current titles, okay. Mainly dance instructor for Vitalidad Movement Arts Events Center, and a Casino dancer at large. That’s yeah, at large. Sometimes I do choreography, sometimes I perform, it just depends on when the opportunity strikes.

Jessie Nowak: (00:53)

And when you get coerced into doing it.

Rob Hilario: (00:55)

Yeah. And when I get coerced in doing it, that’s a long story. It’s not enough time for this interview.

Jessie Nowak: (01:03)

Great. So, can you give me a brief overview of how you got started in dance?

Rob Hilario: (01:08)

I don’t know. I feel it’s, well, it was totally an accident, basically. To be honest, I was drifting through life after high school and through college. I had just finished college, I had a contract job with Nike doing some merchandising for their watches and sunglasses. This is when I was still in San Francisco, obviously. I had a circuit of stores that I’d have to go do my thing at, and the main store was one of the Macy’s in San Francisco, and I ran into one of the associates there and it turned out he was part of a hip hop group in San Francisco. I think it was SoulForce, I’m gonna drop some names for you, for those of you in hip hop. I hope you’ve heard of Micaya in San Francisco. That was her, that was the group that my friend was in, and she wanted him and all her other dancers in the troop to be more versatile. So, she pointed them out to a Casino class. Of course, I didn’t know it was Casino at the time. It was just quote-unquote salsa. And I guess I can explain some of that throughout the interview.

Jessie Nowak: (02:19)

Can we back up a little bit? So you became part of SoulForce?

Rob Hilario: (02:22)

No, I just went with him and his other dancers to the class. Because I came home from a different job at San Francisco. You know, came from a different job that Saturday evening, my friend calls me up and he was always the event coordinator for our group of friends. And he goes, hey, you wanna take this salsa class? And I’m like, yeah, sure, whatever because he usually plans a lot of fun stuff. So, I went and it’s like, oh, I didn’t know, you danced salsa in a circle. And that was, oh God, that was September, 2005.

Jessie Nowak: (03:02)

Awesome. And the rest is history.

Rob Hilario: (03:04)

Now I’m talking to you, now I’m talking to you. 

Jessie Nowak: (03:07)

Awesome. So, what does it mean to you, or has it meant to you, in your life – dance? That is, what has dance meant to you?

Rob Hilario: (03:16)

So, what does it mean to me? Like I said, after I finished high school, I was drifting through life and didn’t, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life. You know, was into sports and video games, like every other high school and college male would be doing at that time, or at least a majority of them would. Then, after I finished school I was just doing the nine-to-five and making sure rent was paid on time and all that stuff and going through the boob tube, like everybody else was. Then by all intents and purposes, I just found this totally by chance. So, it’s given me purpose, in a way it’s been healing for me. The things I learned before learning Casino, I’ve been able to apply to it like training with sports, or even the piano lessons that my mom and dad forced me to take when I was a kid helped me with getting better at doing what I do now. And then in return it’s given a lot back. The people I’ve met, the adventures I’ve had, the experiences I’ve had.

Jessie Nowak: (05:27)

I think most dancers feel something similar, just like, oh wait, what does it feel, or what does it mean to me? And it’s like, purpose. For me, it’s like I don’t know any other way. It’s a part of who I am. And so those really almost inexplicable connections and ties onto your heartstrings that you have with dance and the people that you’ve danced with. I definitely would say without embarrassment or question, I love everyone I’ve danced with. And so those ties can be, those ties are really, really strong. So what challenges have you faced as a dance artist?

Rob Hilario: (06:23)

Here or in San Francisco or both?

Jessie Nowak: (06:27)

Let’s do chronological.

Rob Hilario: (06:28)

Okay. Chronological.

Jessie Nowak: (06:29)

Start from the beginning.

Rob Hilario: (06:31)

Okay. So, a little more detail into what Casino is for those of us listening that aren’t quite sure what it is. It is a Cuban partner dance. It started in Havana in the late forties/early fifties. You could dance it as a partner dance or as a group dance also known as rueda de Casino. It’s grouped with salsa because they’re both very similar. But salsa started in the seventies, I believe in New York. Don’t quote me on that, I’m not too sure, but I know that Casino came before salsa. Yeah. But like I said, they’re similar, but not the same. So when my friend said, hey, you wanna take a salsa class? I had no idea exactly what I was going into, and it was a rueda class and, I’m like, oh, okay. You dance salsa in a circle. That’s fine.

Rob Hilario: (07:22)

The initial challenge for me was when I got to advanced rueda classes where everything is called for you. And I was then told that the advanced rueda class to just partner up with someone and actually lead them one-on-one. And it was a nightmare. It was bad. I did not know how to lead a single damn thing. So from there the very first challenge was okay, I need to know how to actually communicate with my partner about stuff. I remember meeting up with another student in class next week. She showed me some things, I started getting some things down and then I’m like, okay, let’s see how good I can really be. How good can I actually be as a partner dancer? And it just kind of took off from there. Another challenge was, and this is more personal than business for me, was learning better social interactions with people. You know, growing up, I didn’t go out much, whether it be by choice or not. So expanding my world, my social world, was another challenge because I’m actually interacting with another person in a way that I wasn’t used to. Granted there was verbal, but there’s the physical way too. So that was big, a good challenge to just be able to interact with people, whether it be in a verbal way, emotional way, or physical way.

Jessie Nowak: (09:23)

What I’m hearing is, this challenge that you overcame expanded your social skills in general.

Rob Hilario: (09:30)

Yeah. Which I find kind of funny now I think about it, because I haven’t had, since I started, I actually haven’t had a time to reflect. Yeah.

Jessie Nowak: (09:43)

That’s why we do these. So, then challenges in Portland specifically.

Rob Hilario: (09:49)

The Casino scene in San Francisco, in my opinion, is the biggest in North America. You can dance specifically Casino at least three or four times a week. Shoutout to everybody in San Francisco, I love you guys. Here it’s a smaller community. Smaller, but dedicated. One of the goals, and this was just totally a general thing when I first moved here, was to make the Casino scene here stronger as in people who really knew how to dance it, and also having places for people to go and dance. The struggle continues after about ten years. I moved here in April, 2012, so it’ll be 10 years. April 1st, actually. Ironic day for me to move here, but yeah, April 1st.

Jessie Nowak: (10:48)

I’m curious if you had, obviously prior to 2020, had you seen any shift in the Casino community? I know you’re not the only teacher, but having connected with other teachers that did Casino, had you seen any kind of change in the eight years prior to COVID?

Rob Hilario: (11:07)

I think so. When I got here there were veteran Casino dancers who have taken classes for a number of years and knew up to a certain level. And then coming here, I hope I was able to expand what they knew, whether it be vocabulary or concepts and things like that. They were really good to begin with. I just hope I made them even better. You know one class I’ve taught here for pretty much the whole time I’ve been here, and I have four or five students who’ve been with me since day one. And I’ve seen the improvement with them. There’s one student I had who I hold close. He was taking classes with me for about six or seven years and he was a little older, a little huskier. But I really admired his perseverance. I considered him to be my best student, even though he might be, he might be older or whatever. And recently, right before the pandemic, he got in a skiing accident and lost the use of his legs. So, I was very sad when that happened. I tried to keep in touch with him, but you know, our lives just diverted. I definitely need get a hold of him again.

Jessie Nowak: (12:52)

I’m curious. I mean, so the small, but dedicated, I’ve met at least two people. I don’t think either of them are from Portland, but at least two people who are just super passionate about Casino and they’re in the scene. But there’s definitely an element of it being sort of underground. Even more so now than some street dances.

Rob Hilario: (13:14)

It’s definitely, definitely underground.

Jessie Nowak: (13:17)

So, how do you attract new students and how many new students are you able to attract? I don’t need an analytics number, but just generally.

Rob Hilario: (13:27)

You know, it’s funny that you asked, because before the pandemic there was a small stream of new students who had tried out it and some would stick, some would not, some people find out that it’s not for them, which is fine. What’s funny is that since November I’ve had a huge amount of students come into my new, level one class, my beginner classes. I’m like, where did all these people come from? I don’t know what happened, but, I think the pandemic may have been a factor. Like people are done staying home. It’s like, I want to try something new. Granted, salsa is definitely more popular, you know, it just is, but I feel like very recently in the past three or four months there’s been some interest in Casino. I can’t pinpoint what it is to be honest.

Jessie Nowak: (14:20)

I will be curious to check in with you in about six months to see how many have stuck with it. I mean, Cuba was in the news a lot last summer. But I agree, I think people are just looking for outlets. They want to be out with people.

Rob Hilario: (14:35)

Well, hopefully the showcase last August helped.

Jessie Nowak: (14:37)

And to try something new, right? People are looking for new experiences beyond just go, sit down and have a chat over a drink.


So what people, resources and or opportunities have helped you the most?

Rob Hilario: (14:55)

Starting from the beginning, I will give some shoutouts here. James Castaneda. He’s the one who introduced me to Casino and he was the one in the hip hop troop. Sydney Weaverling and Ryan Mead. I did not start with them, but once I got to a certain level, I took a couple of their classes, and it helped expand my vocabulary knowledge. Ryan has his master’s, I believe it’s in music and rhythm, I took a private with him to help expand my knowledge in that as well. Because there’s not only the dancers, the music to it too, which is vastly different than salsa music. I’ll try not to get off onto a tangent there. I got a lot of opportunities from the directors of Salsa Vale Todo. While the run did not end the way I wanted it to, I did learn a lot while I was there. Also friends here in Portland, Aaron and Gabrielle Webb, Jennie Fremont, Meredith Michaud. I’m giving a lot of shoutouts here.

Rob Hilario: (16:22)

They were a big influence in me moving here. Also Mike Eskensen. He was a big influence for me moving here as well. And I want to thank them for putting up with me for the first five years or so.

Jessie Nowak: (16:40)

We all have those people that we need to thank. Thank you for putting up with me, while I figured out what I was doing. What stage do you feel you are at in your career? This is a three part question. What stage do you feel you are at in your career? How do you wanna move forward, and what goals do you have around that?

Rob Hilario: (16:59)

Stage I’m in right now. The pandemic has been a big factor. There were a lot of things that I’m sure everyone had to juggle. I think now that hopefully there’s an end sight. With the pandemic and other things, I feel like I got distracted a little bit. Now that things are starting to clear I’m at the stage, I need to refocus and rededicate to the classes now. I was teaching five classes before the pandemic. And right now it’s at four. I don’t think I’ll go back to five. I just need to keep the workload at a nice level. So, that’s the stage where I’m at now, where I just want to rededicate. What was the second part again?

Jessie Nowak: (18:01)

How do you want to move forward?

Rob Hilario: (18:02)

How do I want to move forward? A couple students want me to start a group. I’m like, okay. I told them, if I’m gonna start a group with you guys, I’m going to have to do it a specific way. And they’re very enthusiastic and they’re great to be around. So I’m like, okay for you guys, I’ll help you out. Hopefully once things normalize again, I do know they want to perform. So it’s a good opportunity to, again, the original goal for me was to make the dancers who are stronger as in better. So bringing in a new group to help them improve and get better and to discover how fun this can be is what I’m going to do. And then in 10 years…

Jessie Nowak: (18:57)

We’re not there yet.

Rob Hilario: (18:57)

Not yet. Okay. What was the third part?

Jessie Nowak: (19:01)


Rob Hilario: (19:02)

Goals. I don’t think I fulfilled the original goal that I had when coming here. So, it’s time to work on that again, circle back around, to it right now. There is an event to go that we can go to that I host along with Gabby and Aaron. It’s twice a month. This one is this Friday, to let you know, Cruzroom, Northeast Alberta and 24th, it’s eight to midnight, $5 all the timba you can handle, that’s the music that you’ll be listening to, all Casino dancers there. Of course everyone is welcome.

Rob Hilario: (19:45)

This Friday, March 4th…

Jessie Nowak: (19:47)

March 4th, which this might not come out before that.

Rob Hilario: (19:52)

Ah, first and third Fridays.

Jessie Nowak: (19:54)

Okay, great. How hard is it balancing administrative work with your own artistic pursuits?

Rob Hilario: (20:03)

I think since I’m not as much of a performer, that I don’t have to line up gigs or anything like that, I feel like for me, it’s a little bit easier. For me, the goals for each, for week to week, would be okay. Who do I have in class this week? What are they doing well, what do they need to improve on? Granted the level one and two classes, there’s a set curriculum, but it will always go away from it if I need to. But there’s some basic things that the new students need to know. But like the higher levels it can be definitely challenging and more fun because they can do more. But I recently have been guilty of pushing them all too hard. So I may have to scale it back a little bit. It’s just feeling out who’s there and what they’re ready for and what they need to be pushed into a little bit. That’s the daily or the weekly challenge for me.

Jessie Nowak: (21:08)

So I’m, you know, putting it into a class planning context, you’ve got your class plan set for your lower levels, but you just fill it out. Who’s here, what needs to happen? So do you get pretty disparate needs?

Rob Hilario: (21:26)

Recently, yes. I mean there are some people who just get it like that. And then there’s some who have never taken a dance class before who may need a little more handholding and guidance. Sure. So it’s an interesting challenge to take care of both ends of the spectrum in the same class. It’s especially, I mean, I’m sure every teacher is nodding their head right now. Every dance instructor is nodding their head right now, so yeah. But it’s a good challenge. It’s a fun challenge. It helps me to be a better instructor as well. Being observant and having to adapt.

Jessie Nowak: (22:10)

You pretty much already covered this question, but do you have anything you want to add about describing the dance scene in Portland? What’s fabulous? And what needs work?

Rob Hilario: (22:21)

What’s fabulous is seeing people make lifelong connections, some of the people, a lot of the regulars that I see I’ve known for at least 14 years. And as far as the new people are concerned, hopefully they’ll find something that they’ll be able to enjoy for a very long time.

Jessie Nowak: (22:54)

I mean, obviously at Dance Wire, we are all about connecting people to dance. And that’s one thing that we hear so much people have lost during the pandemic. And even prior to that new people would come to dance who’d never danced before, and it was community and the connection that they stayed for even more than maybe moving their bodies. The fact that there’s a whole community that revolves around Casino or flamenco or whatever it is. Now, you get to paint your really idealistic picture of what the dance scene in Portland is like in 10 years.

Rob Hilario: (23:28)

Oh, geez. When I first moved here, when I was younger and dumber, I’m gonna make this like San Francisco, you know? But now that I’m more grizzled, it’s good to have that aspiration, but as long as I’m somewhere near that it’ll be great. You know, maybe at least maybe an event once a week where, if some people can’t make it to the event, it’s still a good thing. Right now we haven’t hit that critical mass yet. It’s still a small but dedicated community. Granted, I feel like it’s getting a little bit bigger than it was when I first got here. But I feel like once we get that critical mass of people who are like, oh, this is a lot more fun than I thought, where has this been all my life? So if I can get, or Gabby and Aaron, can get an event running at least once a week where people just go and have a good time. You know, that was, that was basically my goal. When I got into this, I just wanted to go out at night and have a good time. You know, being in a performance group, just kind of fell into that. I’ve always been the type of person to go where life takes me. So that’s why this ten year stuff is like, oh my God, you’re making me think too far. Stop it, Jessie.

Jessie Nowak: (25:03)

Well, idealistic, right? So it doesn’t need to be grounded in reality anyway.

Rob Hilario: (25:06)

I mean, it’s good to have an end to journey toward. I’m quoting something I read. It’s the journey that matters in the end.

Jessie Nowak: (25:17)

For sure. Well, Rob, thank you so much for coming in and sharing about your experience and your perspective. You are definitely the first Casino ambassador that we’ve ever had.

Rob Hilario: (25:32)


Jessie Nowak: (25:33)

I hope you’re not the last.

Rob Hilario: (25:35)

Well, if you want me for a second year, let me know.

Jessie Nowak: (25:38)

Right. And as we see, you know, I don’t know. I, you know, I’m biased. I danced a little bit with Nastasia. I don’t know if I ever went to a room banana event, but they were definitely in my periphery. So I was biased. Casino, super fun. It’s super fun. All right, Rob, thank you so much.

Rob Hilario: (25:57)

Thanks, Jessie.